Cloudy with a chance of great food

The problem with work trips is that one has very little time for personal entertainment.

But this year I made sure to ditch the convention district in Melbourne and go farther in search of a nice place to dine. My colleague and I ended up on Flinders Lane and discovered Cumulus, Inc, a little restaurant with a busy vibe that I so love.

I also love the way the restaurant deftly combines black, white, wood and steel to create a clean, timeless space.

Cumulus, Inc was packed when we got there at 6.45pm and only the bar was free. That was absolutely fine, as the seating location gave us clear views of the kitchen staff at work and the myriad dishes that were being prepared.

We started the evening with some Prosecco and took our time to study the menu which offered a decent selection of local oysters, warm appetisers, salads, meats, fish, cheese and desserts. The friendly staff told us that most of the dishes are for sharing. Brilliant! That meant we could order a wide selection of items and not be too stuffed at the end of the night.

“Everything is beautiful here,” the same friendly staff chirped as she brought out our flutes of Prosecco. “You can order a few dishes first and then add more should you still have space.”

That was a great idea.

So we began our culinary adventure with an assortment of oysters.

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They were all so gooooood.

Next came the baked chilli mussels.

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I’m no master chef and I have no idea how the brilliant peeps of Cumulus, Inc managed to turn these common little creatures into such an enjoyable treat.

Just as we slurped our last mussel, we saw dishes of broccoli salad being brought out and remembered that we ought to have some greens in our meal. So we added that to our order.

Next, the highly recommended tuna tartare with crushed green pea salad.

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It was very pleasing to the eye, that vivid red shade and beautiful jade green. But I did not think it tasted especially memorable.

The cold chopped broccoli salad with green harissa, black garlic and Espelette instead proved to be quite the star. It looked simple, but the sweetness of the broccoli worked so well with the other ingredients, making this dish very enjoyable. Unfortunately, I did not take a photo of it when it came, thinking that it looked too plain to be spectacular. Ahh, must always remember to never judge a book by its cover.

Our final dish was foie gras parfait with toast. Pretty to look at and tasty, but nothing out of this world.

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I like how dishes are served one after the other at Cumulus, Inc, which encourages diners to enjoy their food slowly and partake in conversation with their mates. It also gave us time to study the variety of desserts that came out of the kitchen. Oh, temptations abound!

We definitely had room for dessert, and ordered the strawberries, fromage blanc ice cream & flaky pastry, and chocolate mousse, sour cherry & salted walnuts. The former won the beauty contest, but the latter was so good I died and went to chocolate heaven.

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We were just glad to have come upon Cumulus, Inc. Turns out this place has been mesmerising diners since 2008. Dang. What have I been missing out on the past four years of work trips to Melbourne! :(

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I’ll be sure to be back on my next visit to the city.

Have wine will travel

One doesn’t go to Yarra Valley and not have a sip of nectar.

So we paid Balgownie Estate a visit and had an enjoyable and very educational wine tasting session at Rae’s Restaurant, which draws the beautiful surroundings and daylight inside with the help of full panel glass windows.

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Gordon, a very amiable gentleman, took us through an extensive range of wines and I learned – finally – that NV means non vintage and that sparkling shiraz is so very enjoyable to drink!

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I also found time on my own to visit the charming Yering Station – Victoria’s first vineyard, so says its website – to check out its collection of wines and produce.

Yering Station is an exquisite piece of architecture, built in 1859 using handmade bricks.

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The afternoon’s overcast skies and chilly winds made sitting outdoors with wine for company a somewhat romantic experience.

The inside is wonderland for food lovers, selling all sorts of goodies from homemade nougat and assorted chocolate bars to lovely jams and spiced salt. I was so tempted to buy them all!

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The wine tasting area was unusual too, doubling up as an art gallery.

But instead of wines, I loaded up on homemade nougat, jams and chocolate fudge bars. They looked far more lovely that bottles of wine, I guess! Moreover, imagine the amount of duty I would have to pay when I return to Singapore if I had purchased wines here.

It took me a while to tear myself from the lovely Yering Station, and then I headed back to my hotel which was mere steps away – the stunning Chateau Yering.

The property, with a history as old as Yering Station, was a grand homestead which got converted into a hotel in 1997. It now has 32 suites, all individually designed. I love it for its grand Victorian era interior decor which is put together using old European art, rich fabrics and oversized furniture.

The Drawing Room, especially, took my breath away.

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My suite, which came with a generous sized verandah that looked out to rolling hills in the distance, was a real delight too. Largely because it was in shades of my favourite colour – pink!

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I thought it was most adorable that the ‘Do not disturb’ sign was a fluffy stuffed toy cat that guests would leave at the door should they desire privacy.

The bed was one of the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in. In fact, it felt so much like my own bed back home. And my own bed is truly the best place to rest my weary body at the end of every day. :)

And with that, I bid you good night.

First taste of Yarra

Does this view of Yarra Valley, the renowned wine and gourmet region in Victoria, Australia, look desolate to you?

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Well, perhaps. The region is coming out of a dry spell after all. But it is also a view of such freedom. Freedom of space, to be exact. Sweet, glorious, wide open space.

Space that is lacking in tiny Singapore.

Perhaps that is why I enjoy visiting the sub-urban regions of any country to take in the slower, more scenic sights that are lacking in key commercial cities.

Anyway, even if it does look desolate, I quite enjoy this vision. I have a thing for bare trees and dry fields. Perhaps I find it fascinating that soon, in the next season, life will thrive again and all will be lush and green.

My trip to Melbourne this year gave me a chance to explore Yarra Valley, and my first stop to this area was Healesville Sanctuary, one of the best places in Australia – as I was told by many locals – to see the local wildlife in captivity.

Healesville Sanctuary is such a sprawling place and the animal compounds so spacious and hardly enclosed, that I did not feel like I was in a zoo.

Say hello to this ‘roo which is a vision of absolute bliss, as he lay so serenely in his open compound, enjoying the early morning sun. Somehow, he reminded me of a Sports Illustrated model striking a sexy pose on the beach.

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The koala compound had just a simple fence, allowing visitors to enjoy clear views of these gentle creatures going about lazily on their tree. Our guide told us that koalas do two things all day – eat and sleep. “Just like teenagers,” he quipped, drawing chuckles from knowing parents in our group.

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As we roamed around, we came upon a lovely girl with a dingo on a leash. What a handsome animal!

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There are several featured shows and opportunities for visitors to get up close and personal with some of the resident wildlife. We did not stay long enough to do everything, but we did catch Tales from Platypus Creek (I finally realised that platypus are so tiny!) and Spirits of the Sky, a showcase of regal birds of prey and playful parrots. Fun stuff, although the heat made me quite sleepy half-way through Tales from Platypus Creek.

Alright. Bye for now. But first, I’ll leave you with a lusher view of Yarra Valley, taken from the beautiful RACV Healesville Country Club.

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Yarra Valley is so beautiful, eh?

Eat, shop, sleep Hong Kong

It was seven years ago when I last visited Hong Kong and it was also during the festive Chinese Lunar New Year then.

What a lot of difference seven years have brought to our experience when we returned to Hong Kong for a short vacation this month. Although there were already many Mainland Chinese tourists in Hong Kong then, the crowds on the streets were not quite as maddening as it was now. This time, we heard more Mandarin being spoken than Cantonese, the official language of Hong Kong.

And somehow, the service level in the average shop in Hong Kong has dipped quite considerably. Gone are the cheery chirps of “Welcome! Feel free to look around. No obligations to buy!”. Now, exhausted, grim faces greet us wherever we went.

Not easy serving the hurried Mainlanders, I suppose.

Anyway, when in Hong Kong, stops at a few places are requisite – especially when you are a first time visitor. Although the husband and I have been to Hong Kong before, this time we were joined by my newly retired father and little brother who have never set foot in the Fragrant Harbour.

So we brought them to Victoria Peak to spend an entertaining hour at Madame Tussauds and then watch the sun set up at the observatory deck at the highest point; Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple to offer some joss sticks to the deities and see the flurry of activity common during the Lunar New Year (images below); and the ever popular Avenue of Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui.

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The aged female sorcerers who offer to literally beat off villains from one’s life from their stations under the Canal Road Flyover, between Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, are also a recommended sight for tourists. So there we headed one afternoon.

What the sorcerer does is to use magic and a litany of curses that sounds almost musical to the ears to break down the client’s foe while smacking a paper figurine of the targeted villain with a single old shoe (the older, the more worn the shoe, the more brilliant the curse). The curse is complete just when the paper figurine is reduced to shreds. Then, with another set of prayers, the sorcerer then bless the client with good luck, good health, prosperity and happiness going forward.

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It was a process most fun to witness and I wonder how many more years will we have before this ancient trade finally dies out.

We also paid our respects to Hong Kong’s retail diversity, from the chic shops in Causeway Bay and the traditional dried seafood and herbs paradise in Sheung Wan, to the myriad factory outlets in Citygate Outlets. Although daddy said he wanted to shop while in Hong Kong, he turned out to be quite disinterested in doing so once we were at the shops. Instead, it was I who spent more than I ought to, on clothes and accessories that I don’t quite need. Ah, so much for my New Year’s resolution!

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We also indulged in the fruits offered by Hong Kong’s culinary paradise.

The hotel where we stayed at for three nights, Regal Kowloon Hong Kong, has a Chinese restaurant that is renowned for its honeyed roasted pork (also known as charsiu). We enjoyed it twice during our stay, along with a variety of delicate dim sum and other dishes which included an excellent steamed grouper (it came with a hefty price tag of HK$1,200 or S$196 but was worth every cent).

Here. Say hi to the HK$1,200 fish. Its death was not a wasted one.

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We also stuffed our faces at Chi Ji Wanton Noodles which is famous for its, well, you guessed it, wanton noodles; Mido Cafe, a traditional Hong Kong-style tea house that is popular for its well preserved 60s ambiance although I thought its food was overrated and overpriced; and Morton’s The Steakhouse at The Sheraton Hotel, only because we all desired a change from Chinese food and a slab of prized Porterhouse always sounds so seductive.

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However, my favourite experience on this trip is our visit to Cheung Chau Island, accessible by ferry from Central Pier No. 5. The island stands in stark contrast from cosmopolitan Hong Kong. Its shores are swamped with colourful fishing boats that haul in fresh sea harvest for the many seafood restaurants close to the pier. Its people go about on foot and simple bicycles, pausing occasionally to shout greetings to a neighbour.

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Houses and shops line the narrow roads that wind uphill. Occasionally we would spot houses with interesting frontage.

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There are several attractions such as Cheung Po Tsai Cave, home of a notorious pirate and a few temples. A cave is a cave and I doubt daddy would care much for it. So we went in search of the temples instead.

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Besides seafood, Cheung Chau has street carts that sell tasty boiled balls of fish meat on skewers and other snacks, as well as traditional breakfast items such as rice porridge with lean meat and century eggs, steamed rice rolls drenched in hoisin sauce, soy sauce and sesame seeds and squares of pan-fried radish cakes.

One particular shop – Li En Ji – on the right of the pier, just past the big seafood restaurants, serve up pretty good breakfast items at absolutely pocket-friendly prices.

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Oh I could eat these simple fare everyday!

The one thing that we did not get to do while in Hong Kong, much to our regret, is to eat a roasted goose from the Michelin starred Yong Kee Restaurant on Wellington Street, just off the side of Lan Kwai Fong’s bar street. A flu scare was in the winds while we were there, and fowls from China were culled and destroyed just days before. Locals we met advised us against eating anything with wings, and we chose to be cautious.

Perhaps next time we will have a full roasted goose. :)

Osaka – good for gluttons

Osaka is very much like Singapore and most big, commercial cities – its people are always in a mad rush, traffic is heavy and commuting is a very stressful exercise.

While we did not quite like that aspect of Osaka, we do love, love, love its food culture and abundant options of restaurants in Minami (accessible by Namba Station) and Kita (accessible by Osaka Station).

Minami, where Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi shopping street are, is a hive of activity in the day and night. It is fascinating to see the array of lightboxes and oversized food replicas adorning the front of shops and buildings, eagerly beckoning consumers to come their way and spend some money. As if the lightboxes and oversized food replicas aren’t enough to entice consumers, most shops hire staff to stand at the entrance to shout their wares.

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Oh yes. A trip to Osaka isn’t complete without taking a photo of Glico Man!

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We took a step further by getting TWO photos of Glico Man – one in the day, one in the night.

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Since it was tough deciding what to eat in Minami, we ended up having three lunches in a day – one at a kaiten-zushi shop, one at Kani Doraku (our second go on this trip, with the first mega crab feast in Kyoto) and one at a western-style bistro where we had excellent sundaes (which the locals prefer to call ‘parfait’).

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Boy, I’m glad we have big Singaporean stomachs and appetites!

There’s also plenty to eat in Kita. Immediately around where we stayed, at Monterey Osaka, close to Osaka Station, is a long strip mall that houses a computer and gaming shop and a mind-boggling selection of restaurants. There, we patronised an okonomiyaki specialty shop, an izakaya that serves cheap set lunches in the day and Eki Bacon – out favourite! – a place for imported beers, sausages and crispy, roasted pork.

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There’s something wonderful about Japanese pork. I’m not usually a fan of pork, as it tends to stink. But pigs reared in Japan produce a particularly sweet and tender meat that tastes delightful however it is cooked.

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If there’s one thing I miss about Osaka, it has to be the crispy, roasted pork from Eki Bacon. :(

Hunting down an abandoned railway track

When I left vacation planning to the good husband this year, I should have prepared myself for quite a bit of action. We’ve hiked up three mountains so far on this trip to Japan, and my back and knees are threatening to give up on me.

Still, the husband had one more surprise for me which he revealed yesterday.

And the surprise was a hunt for the abandoned JR Fukuchiyama railway track.

ImageThe adventure began at Namaze Station. Following the directions of the excited husband, we walked along a busy stretch of road that was frequented by large buses, lorries, container trucks and heavy vehicles. My heart leapt to my throat whenever a monster rumbled past me at high speed.

After 15 minutes or so, we crossed that crazy, busy road and came upon a expansive field with little houses and lush greenery in the distance.

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Closing in on that field, we took a little path on the left of that field and that soon brought us to an old signboard that warned of danger ahead. Yep. We were on the right track.

Ignoring the sign, we went forth and crossed an old but sturdy bridge.The vista that greeted us from there on was one of the most brilliant I’ve seen on this trip. Running along the Mukogawa river valley, the abandoned track is now loved by locals who appreciate the serene and scenic environment.

If you are a worry wart like I am, rest assured that this abandoned track is truly safe to explore. Along the way we met small groups of elderly folks and the occasional dog walker. Just remember to put on proper hiking shoes, as the ground is littered with rocks, stones and tree branches, and bring along a strong flashlight to help you conquer the six unlit train tunnels on that route.

We covered the full length of the abandoned track in three hours, with several stops for photos.

I shall let the photos do the talking from here on. :)

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A cup noodle playground

It was mid afternoon by the time we arrived in Osaka today, so we rushed to one attraction that we were bent on visiting: Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum.

It is the one place any instant noodle fan must visit, as it tells the history and evolution of instant noodles in Japan – specifically that of Nissin’s.

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Plus, visitors can make their own cup noodles at the museum’s My Cup Noodle Factory. One gets to choose from four soup bases and from a list of toppings. One can even draw his/her own cup.

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One can also buy an assortment of souvenirs and past and current editions of instant noodles at a souvenir shop in the museum too. Perfect for tourists!

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Oh, did you know that ingesting too much MSG, an ingredient always present in instant noodles, can cause hair loss?